Back in Hack: Journopalooza, Where the Boys on the Bus Become the Boys in the Band
Porto Recanati, an Adriatic fishing village of about 9,000 residents, boasts among its vacation amenities Arena Gigli, a medieval courtyard converted into an outdoor theater that hosts plays, opera, film screenings, and concerts. Past performances include traveling productions of Hair and Jesus Chris Superstar and a Queen tribute group. The headliner one warm evening last August? Suspicious Package, a five-piece band led by The Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles.
So how did this group—composed of D.C.-based journalists and government officials—land a junket to the Italian seaside where they played covers of '80s mainstays to an audience of more than 1,000 tourists and resort workers?
“We played the Italian embassy and this guy asked if we would play this summer concert series,” Toles, the band’s drummer and lead singer, tells me last Friday evening at the National Press Club. How Suspicious Package got to 14th and F Streets NW on this night is another good question. The scene is Journopalooza, an annual confab of basement bands manned by Beltway reporters, editors, journalism professors, and press officers. Not just band—bands.
Christina Davidson, an Atlantic correspondent, first organized Journopalooza in 2009 after seeing some of Suspicious Package’s early public performances. The group formed in mid-2007, but spent its first year banging around in Toles’ basement. “It started out as a running joke,” Davidson says. “I thought they should come out of Toles’ basement and have a battle of the bands.”
Like many subgenres, journo-rock can be found most often in the blogosphere, though you won’t find these bands on Brightest Young Things, the Post’s Click Track, or (this instance aside) Washington City Paper’s Arts Desk. This scene is the D.C. media bubble at its most insular. Suspicious Package shows are written up on FishbowlDC; a basement performance of the Nativemakers, a band fronted by New York Times correspondent Carl Hulse, gets shoutouts in Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook morning e-mail with color like “politicos and other journalists cheered him on.” Last week, Journopalooza was previewed by Playbook, HuffPost Hill, FishbowlDC, and Variety’s “Wilshire & Washington” column.
Halfway through the evening I stroll past a bar off the ballroom where Journopalooza is underway. Caitlin Byrnes, who writes a society blog called The Scene for the newsletter publisher Bisnow, sees my notepad and pulls me aside.
“Are you covering this?”
I answer in the affirmative. Byrnes, a petite brunette in an aubergine dress, introduces me to her friends, all lawyers or public relations professionals. She points to a 30-something blonde chatting with some friends on the other end of the room, noting that the woman’s husband is a few decades her senior. We’re approached by an event photographer, complete with bolo tie and an unflinching grin, who asks us to stand for a photo that will be uploaded straight away to the slideshow projected behind the stage. Instant memories of how much fun we’re having!
Some in the crowd are workaday general-assignment reporters and segment producers out to support their colleagues. But more seem to come from the portion of the Press Club’s membership that isn’t actively involved in day-to-day journalism—but is damn glad to be inside the D.C. bubble. While the kind of new-media-savvy journalists often covered on FishbowlDC do tend to turn out at Suspicious Package gigs, I don’t spot any boldface names on the parquet dance floor on this night—mostly middle-aged couples spazzing out to a paint-by-numbers cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’” by NRBK, a band led by former Variety Washington bureau chief Bill Triplett and former U.S. News & World Report editor Robb Deigh.
In fact, invitations were sent far and wide, including to the White House Office of Communications. But in his Saturday Playbook, Mike Allen would only report a single Obama administration official in attendance—Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, celebrating her birthday. “(h/t) Patrick Gavin.”
The performers—easily the evening’s best-known participants—couldn’t quite manage to rope in the big guns, even if they share a bed. Around the same time Yahoo! News editor Chris Lehmann’s band Charm Offensive takes the stage, his wife, GQ columnist Ana Marie Cox, is across town at the 9:30 Club tweeting about Yo La Tengo’s show.
Like many National Press Club events, the room buzzes with interns and students grasping for connections. A pair of American University journalism majors check tickets at the door. Midway through the night I ask Ariana Wohlstattar, a junior, and Heather Sinclair, a sophomore, if they’ve encountered any notable journalists in the audience. They could name only two, both of whom were likely required to attend: Bloomberg’s Alan Bjerga, whose presidency of the Press Club had ended earlier that day, and the Associated Press’ Mark Hamrick, his successor. But these two budding reporters were thrilled to be at Journopalooza. “It gives the opportunity for journalists to socialize and loosen up,” Wohlstattar says.
Some were trying a bit too hard, like the evening’s MCs, Rich Edson and Jamie McIntyre, who received the hosting gig for winning Commedia dell Media, another Press Club function that looks for Washington’s funniest journalist. (Though after their performances Friday, I’d like a booth review of their stand-up routines.) McIntyre, a former CNN Pentagon correspondent who now writes for Military.com, fumbles through a one-liner about an acid flashback following the opening set by Post columnist John Kelly’s Monkees tribute band.
Edson, a dayside reporter for the Fox Business Network, does something far more galling. Throwing on an overcoat, aviator sunglasses, and black mop-top wig, he presents himself as Sir Nigel Boshtooth, a drink-sodden pastiche of This is Spinal Tap, Ozzy Osbourne at the Grammys, and Seth MacFarlane’s take on all British people. The crowd is smashed enough to chuckle.
Edson calls Sir Nigel “G-rated” later. “It’s always good to be on the side of ‘G’,” he tells me after switching into a yellow throwback Who T-shirt. “These events are very family-oriented, and everyone is there for their friends.”
Aside from a few grimacing teenagers surely dragooned into attendance, there are no families to be found. But Edson wasn’t wrong about friends of the bands showing up. Bryan Halston, a friend of Suspicious Package keyboardist and backup singer Christina Sevilla, is there with his girlfriend Marley Clements. Halston, a telecom salesman, calls Journopalooza a “good event.”
Clements is more enthusiastic about her evening inside the bubble. “I want to support local bands,” she tells me. (Three local bands known for their music and not their membership—Tereu Tereu, Bluebrain, and The Dismemberment Plan—were playing at the Black Cat that evening.) “And there are so many journalists here. I’m going to go dance with my boyfriend now.”
Journopalooza’s altruistic side is noble enough—Davidson’s battle of the bands doubles as a fundraiser for Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Press Club’s Eric Friedheim National Journalism Library, with sponsorships by BAE Systems and the Recording Industry Association of America adding to the kitty. Flying Dog Brewery supplies the beer. The event sells 600 tickets—nearly as many as The Dismemberment Plan at the Black Cat—and raises $21,000 for the charities, according to Joshua Funk, the Press Club’s director of business development.
Still, like so many gatherings of inside-the-Beltway journalists, it’s mostly about the participants. Suspicious Package, more than any other band at Journopalooza, embodies the masturbatory nature of Washington media and politics. Though the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toles is the hook, it’s Sevilla, a deputy assistant U.S. trade representative, who’s got the hookup on the embassy circuit. Her attendance at the Finnish Embassy’s diplomatic sauna sessions led to a Suspicious Package show there. (Other embassies booked them, too; after all, what enterprising press attaché wouldn’t want a crowd of journalists dancing on his or her turf?) The show for the Italian diplomats was an April 2009 fête for New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who was there to receive the Urbino Press Award, a prize founded in 2006 to reward already well-established American journalists with a party in Italy. A year later, Suspicious Package was en route to Porto Recanati.
“I really love the look of the bands,” Funk tells me. “When you think of D.C. you think of journalists, lawyers, government officials. It makes for such a great event for journalists, by journalists.” The photographer with the bolo tie is nearby again. For the second time he invites me to offer myself up to the Press Club’s social newsletter. Funk wants me in the photo, too. Again, I dart away.
With little surprise, Suspicious Package, who plays last, wins the battle of the bands and is invited back for an encore. The only group that came with original music, Dirty Bomb, is out front selling copies of their Jack Abramoff-inspired rock opera King of the Hill. The frontman, Andy Sullivan, a Reuters congressional correspondent, spent a chunk of the 1990s touring the Midwest with his rowdy Twin Cities alt-country band Steeplejack; the drummer, Matt Tebo, has played with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. All the members of Suspicious Package claim not to have played in a rock band before the group’s inception in 2007. Yet the cover act is the main event, while actual songwriters are in the hallway flogging their wares. Bloomberg’s Bjerga is there, wearing a Vikings-era Brett Favre jersey and recounting a yarn about how Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota once complemented it at another party.
Because Journopalooza is not about the music. It’s barely about the charity, however worthy. It’s about members of the National Press Club rubbing elbows and staying in their bubble like any boozy country-club soiree. Not that anyone cares.
“Exclusive’s fun,” Edson says as he ruffles his wig and becomes Sir Nigel.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery. For more shots from Journopalooza, see his post from earlier this week.